SITTWE, Myanmar – People fled their burning homes and Myanmar’s security forces struggled to contain communal violence Tuesday in a western region where state media reported the death toll climbed to 21.
The conflict pitting ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against stateless Rohingya Muslims in coastal Rakhine state marks some of the worst sectarian unrest recorded in Myanmar in years. President Thein Sein has declared an emergency in Rakhine state and warned that the spiraling violence could threaten the democratic reforms tentatively transforming the country after half a century of military rule.
From Friday through Monday, the evening’s news report said, 21 people have been killed, 21 wounded and 1,662 houses burned down around Rakhine state. The mass violence started Friday in Maungdaw township, when what was said to be a mob of 1,000 Muslims went on a rampage and had to be restrained by armed troops.
The violence afterward spread, including to the state capital, Sittwe.
Truckloads of security forces have been deployed in Sittwe. Soldiers helped move 1,000 Muslims by trucks to safer areas.
State TV showed Defense Minister Gen. Hla Min visiting refugee camps for Rakhines opened at Buddhist monasteries and distributing food and other relief goods.
It also showed him meeting with some Muslim elders in Sittwe and visiting camps where Muslim villagers are sheltered, to which he also gave relief goods. It was the first time state television showed a camp housing Muslims.
Neighboring Bangladesh has turned back about 1,500 Rohingyas trying to escape by boat in recent days, according to officials there.
Myanmar’s government regards the Rohingyas as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and has rendered them stateless by denying them citizenship. Although some are recent settlers, many have lived in Myanmar for generations and rights groups say they suffer severe discrimination.